Saudi Arabia steps up the fight against cancer

A CT scan shows the contrast between a healthy lung, left, and a lung affected by cancer, right. (Getty Images)
Updated 18 March 2019

Saudi Arabia steps up the fight against cancer

  • The Kingdom is planning a string of prevention initiatives to tackle one of the region’s biggest killers
  • War on Cancer conference in Dubai hears that the Middle East is forecast to experience the fastest increase in cancer globally

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health is aiming to become a global leader in the prevention of cancer, one of the region’s biggest killers, the deputy minister for therapeutic services told Arab News on the sidelines of the War on Cancer Middle East conference in Dubai on Tuesday.

In an exclusive interview, Tareef Yousef Alaama revealed that the ministry is planning a string of cancer-prevention initiatives in a bid to create a U-turn in the disease’s rising numbers. These include the roll-out of advanced screening programs; establishing new cancer centers across the region; increasing palliative care; and improving public health awareness about risk factors associated with cancer, including tobacco use, lifestyle habits and unhealthy diets. 

“With the new health-care transformation that is going on in Saudi Arabia — the biggest in its history — as well as the specific clinical care initiatives we are championing right now, I am confident Saudi Arabia will become a global leader in health care and in cancer prevention,” Alaama told Arab News. 

Over the next two decades, the Middle East is forecast to experience the fastest increase in the cancer burden globally, and by 2030 the prevalence of the disease is expected to be double what it was in 2012, experts heard at The Economist conference.

In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, cancer incidence rose by 49 percent and 62 percent, respectively, between 2008 and 2017.

At the conference, international experts warned that a “tsunami” of cancer will cripple health systems across the Middle East unless regional issues hampering progress in tackling one of the biggest killers are addressed. 

A population boom, environmental factors, lifestyle choices and increasing detection rates have been pinpointed as the main drivers for the soaring figures, but they are further propelled by limited access to high-quality treatment and care, the conference heard. As the region grapples with how to invest in cancer treatment, improve prevention, screening, early detection and treatment, experts urged regional governments to devise a roadmap to reduce the prevalence of the disease.

Alaama said cancer has to be thought of as a continuum. “If you really want to tackle cancer, you have to start from the beginning, meaning preventing cancer,” he said.

“Public health and prevention techniques and improving the health of the population as a whole not only tackles cancer but also prevents myriad other issues — diabetes, obesity, blood pressure and strokes, and so on. 

“So we in Saudi Arabia are strong believers in the role of public health and prevention; we recently had an amazing step forward when we got a royal decree stating that public health is to be a priority on all health policies. 

“The whole government now works together in advancing public health, and we have had fantastic initiatives as part of that in terms of smoking, improving lifestyle, encouraging exercise (and) improving dietary habits.”

One example, said Alaama, is the compulsory posting of calories on menus in restaurants across the Kingdom. “I think we are the first to do this in the region. We have also had smoking-cessation initiatives and changing the branding of cigarette packs and the so-called ‘sin tax’ on tobacco. We are doing many things to get the prevention point of view in hand.”

Another area of the continuum of cancer care is early screening. Alaama said that Saudi Arabia has “ambitious” plans for multiple screening programs to be rolled out across the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia will become a global leader in health care and in cancer prevention, says Tareef  Yousef Alaama, Deputy minister for therapeutic services. (Supplied)

“We are rapidly improving breast cancer screening, and now we will be starting a strong program for colon cancer screening. Breast and colon: These are two of the most important (cancers) for us and are relatively preventable through screening and early detection. We are expanding, but we need to expand more. 

“We started having breast-screening clinics in malls, for example, to make it more accessible to the public, and we also have mobile units. The idea is, people do shy away from breast cancer screening, and we are trying to make it more accessible for them and more user-friendly to ensure we catch breast cancer in the early stages.”

Addressing diagnosis and therapy of cancer, Alaama said that Saudi Arabia had done “an amazing job” over the past decade in introducing state-of-the-art cancer centers in the Kingdom.

“Right now, we plan to scale up these cancer centers, to have these services provided in most of the regions of Saudi Arabia, so the service is accessible to everyone at their location, without having to travel. 

“We are doing that through having three or four main cancer centers affiliated with smaller cancer centers across the regions, across the Kingdom. So they can exchange experiences, they can use the same protocols, patients can go between, but as if they were being treated in the same place and, in this way, we want to ensure that the services are provided without the patients having to travel. We know that we have world-level services, but we want to make sure that is available everywhere, for everyone.”

Palliative care is also at the top of the ministry’s future agenda. “It is one of those areas that has not been a priority in the past, but it will be, as we know for a fact that introducing palliative care early actually improves survival,” Alaama said. “It not only improves quality of life, but also makes people live longer.”

During the conference, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) also revealed a snapshot of its cancer preparedness index, discussing the results of current cancer research and key findings. The index examined 28 countries across the world, including two from the Middle East — Saudi Arabia and Egypt — on how well-prepared countries are to achieve major reductions in premature deaths from cancer, increase cancer survival rates and improve quality of life for cancer patients.

The MENA region ranked the lowest on the chart, with a score of 56.7 percent, compared with a global average of 72.8 percent. The index found that, compared with other regions, cancer did not have the same priority as in other parts of the world, despite the region recording steep increases in the incidence of the disease.

The index recommended that Saudi Arabia, in particular, should improve its cancer registry, tackle smoking and other lifestyle choices, and implement more screening and early detection. 

Alaama welcomed the findings. “I was very happy to see the recommendations given, and I agree with them. But I am very proud to say we have been one step ahead. If you look at all the recommendations made in relation to Saudi Arabia, we are actually approaching every one of them — and each one is a priority.

“When they talk about the integration of the sector, we are working on that; when they talk about investing in oncology expertise, that is one thing we are investing in — not only doctors but also nurses and pharmacists, everyone who cares for the cancer patient. 

“We are also improving our cancer registry,” Alaama said. “We have a good registry that we are proud of; we started it a few years ago, and it is one of the few in the region. But I think there is room for improvement, and we are addressing that.”

Saudi Arabia is expanding cancer screening programs as part of moves to cut rates of the illness. (Getty Images)

At the conference, global experts and policymakers recommended a “call to action” to address hurdles that hinder progress in tackling cancer, particularly in a region that is home to diverse populations and socioeconomic groups, including the less wealthy, and with a high proportion of overseas workers.

Speaking to Arab News, Princess Dina Mired of Jordan, president of the Union for International Cancer Control, said that governments need to decide “at the highest political level” if they are going to take a “transformative approach” to cancer, or remain simply reactive and continue to “just put a Band-Aid” on the issue.

“We are seeing a tsunami of cancer cases in the region, and we are set to experience one of the highest incidence of cancer in all regions,” she said.

“We need to adopt an all-of-society approach where governments, the private sector and civil society work collaboratively to bring to life innovative, sustainable and appropriately resourced life-saving solutions for cancer.”

INTERVIEW: Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, the prince who wants everyone to be part of Saudi Arabia’s forward trajectory

Updated 23 min 36 sec ago

INTERVIEW: Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, the prince who wants everyone to be part of Saudi Arabia’s forward trajectory

  • The Saudi royal is a venture capitalist and a key supporter of entrepreneurship in the Kingdom

JEDDAH: Arab News recently got up close and personal with Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed, a name that is often associated with successful business, entrepreneurial and humanitarian ventures.

Khaled bin Alwaleed has never conformed to the typical image of what a royal should be like, and he says this was down to his parents.

“It stems from how I grew up and what my parents instilled in me. They really emphasized how important it is to connect with people no matter what position in life they hold.”

He said that his mother used to get on with everyone in their household, from kitchen staff to gardeners, on a very personal level, giving each person importance and inclusion. “That connection — that characteristic — is probably one of the best examples of how I grew up.

“Sometimes I don’t act in the ‘proper’ manner that people expect. I’m here to do what I believe is right, and what I believe is right is being myself.”

He admits that in the past he had struggled with the conflict of how he should act to suit the persona expected of him. 

He admits that he struggled in the past to manage people’s expectations of him.

“I thought I should act in a certain way, do certain things that were expected of me, but were really alien to my personality and what I wanted to do for myself. In the end, what has worked best for me is being as honest and as genuine as possible.”

The Investor 

Prince Khaled founded his holding and investment company, KBW Ventures, in 2014, and he has made it his purpose to invest in a broad range of businesses, from technology start-ups to successful companies.

Prince Khaled doesn’t consider himself a renowned entrepreneur — he says calling him this would steal the thunder from everyone who started from scratch. He thinks of himself as more of a venture capitalist who supports entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

Before taking on a project, what he looks for most is the drive, knowledge, and commitment of the entrepreneur. 

“I look at how well they understand how to scale a particular business, and the business itself. It is important to know how well the founder (of the business) knows the industry, the numbers, competition, and how to best showcase their product or service and put it in front of the right audience.”


Name: Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud

Date of Birth: 21 April 1978

Education: Bachelor in business from the University of New Haven.

Current position: • Founder and CEO of KBW Ventures • Founder and Chairman of KBW Investments.

His advice to local businesses (and this applies to young entrepreneurs, as well) is to do their homework on the industry of the start-up, the potential verticals that exist, scalability, and to assess everything through due diligence before jumping into a project — at least that’s how he runs things.

“We should all want to be part of Saudi’s forward trajectory. My ideal situation is to put Saudi Arabia on the map as having the most successful track record for venture-backed companies. KBW Ventures has thankfully had a very good start but it doesn’t stop there. I want to partner with more Saudis to expose our entrepreneurs and our venture capitalists to international markets and international venture-backed companies. We’re not just an oil-rich country; we’re rich in entrepreneurship, we’re rich in innovation, and hopefully, quickly getting richer in terms of our history with venture-backed companies.”

He thinks the future is in the hands of the youth,  basing this view on how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has changed things in Saudi Arabia.

“Mohammed bin Salman is the face of Saudi youth and its future — he has mobilized and invigorated the younger generation like no one before. I’ve never seen so many young people looking for a way to support the country and get involved — it is the best time for us as Saudis.”

Prince Khaled with King Salman

Prince Khaled has much more on his agenda, focusing on causes where he can make a difference such as “climate change, sustainability and animal welfare,” he said.

With KBW Ventures, he hopes to act as an ambassador to a healthier, more sustainable society.

The prince is also an enthusiastic humanitarian and vocal vegan, who has chosen to apply his beliefs to his lifestyle first.

“I started as a vegetarian many years ago and gradually transitioned my lifestyle completely; I’ve talked extensively about the health benefits and I think if people even adopt reducetarian measures it is great for the planet and for overall health and wellbeing.”

He said that at this point, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is no longer an option but a necessity. “I really feel the need to incorporate physical activity into my day and it’s matched with clean eating. No matter how busy you are, your health is the most necessary aspect as obviously if that isn’t a priority things fall apart very quickly. I work out daily and I eat well; that’s what fuels me to do what I do.

He has noticed the onslaught of GCC individuals going plant-based. He thinks that they are motivated by a combination of factors: the desire to live healthier and to live more humanely, in terms of being kinder to animals and reducing our damage to the earth. He is fully supportive of the General Sports Authority Chairman Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal with its mission of promoting mass sports participation and working on educating the health care system and citizens in general. “I’m not naïve enough to think the world is going to go vegan, it is not practical. Saudi is a very meat-centric culture; for the Saudi health problems of obesity and heart-related issues, I really encourage everyone to try a reducetarian diet by incorporating more fresh vegetables, legumes, basically just expand your eating horizons.”



Saudi Humane Society 

Prince Khaled’s latest move on a very resolute chessboard is taking on the role of the presidency at the Saudi Humane Society (Rifq, or SHS) in January 2019. He told Arab News: “I happily accepted the role as I believe I can add value there.”

Acting as one of the first NGOs in Saudi, SHS was dormant for the past few years, he said. Under his leadership, SHS now has two, five and 10-year goals across various tenets. 

SHS will be introducing TNR [Trap-Neuter-Release] programs, as some Saudi cities have issues with strays. 

“This issue wasn’t dealt with humanely in the past, and the important thing is that moving forward we work toward preventing these incidents from happening again. 

The Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs, HE Eng. Abdullatif bin Abdulmalik Al-Sheikh, banned animal poisoning; a noteworthy first step in the right direction, followed by TNR.”

SHS will also work with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), on the legislation to prevent the import of exotic animals, as well as with other organizations to deal with exotic animals in Saudi and returning them to the wild.

“We’ll be collaborating with the government on recommendations on how to best operate the sanctuaries, introduce animals back into the wild, and also educate the public on the importance and absolute necessity of biodiversity,” he said.

SHS also led a campaign recruiting young volunteers in different regions of the Kingdom to participate in rescuing animals. Prince Khaled is a firm believer in the youth’s effect on the advancement of society.

“Activating our youth across everything we do is how we really activate Saudi, whether it is for animal welfare or for our work with health and wellness. There has been a slew of volunteers coming to donate their time, effort and their emotion to these animals. We are so blessed to have a relationship with these people, they’re passionate and they really care. They will work on a TNR program in Madina, starting from the university in Taibah where they’ll trap, neuter then relocate the animals in other areas.”



A program that traps stray cats, spays or neuters them, and then returns them to where they were found or, if the place isn’t secure, relocates them to a better home.